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Our allocation backlog

An Ombudsman’s office is the place people turn to when things go wrong. Whether they want information about how they can address their complaints, or want an investigation, there is an expectation that the Ombudsman can and will help in a timely manner. However, those expectations may not be met when that office is experiencing a backlog. This is the current situation in my office. While I have previously discussed this issue in my Annual Reports and previous blogs, I wanted to use this blog to clearly set out the current state of play, what we are doing to try and resolve it and the proposed way forward.

As of 5 July 2018 we have 99 applications for substance (merits) and maladministration investigations that are waiting to be allocated to an investigator. Those applications date back to November 2017.

The reason for this backlog is that the number of applications we are receiving is greater than the resource we have to handle them. We have four Senior Investigators who are currently at capacity handling (as of 10 July) 48 active substance and maladministration cases. Those investigations are in addition to the admissibility reviews and undue delay investigations that are handled by both the Senior Investigators and two Investigators (and for which there is no backlog). In addition, a new Senior Investigator is undergoing training.

This means that any new applications for substance and maladministration investigations go straight on to the allocation list. The number of applications being received is growing daily, much faster than investigations can be closed. The current wait time for allocation is 8 months.

When a Senior Investigator’s caseload has capacity, they are allocated a new case from that list. All cases are allocated in order of the date they were received in our office.

There is a limit to the number of cases that each investigator can be allocated.  This is because there is a limit to the amount of work they can reasonably undertake, even when working to stretch targets, and still do a thorough, high quality job.

Substance and maladministration investigations are the most resource intensive matters dealt with by my office. They often concern complex and challenging issues. Where a complaint has taken months, or even years, to complete the internal Service complaints system, completion of a thorough review and investigation by my office will take time.

This raises the question: How did this happen?

Ever since we transitioned from Commissioner to Ombudsman, our investigations team has not been fully staffed. While in the beginning we were only carrying one or two vacancies, over the last 1.5yrs this has increased. As I wrote in my latest Annual Report, we were operating at an average of 50% capacity throughout 2017.

This is not a situation we ever wanted to be in and rest assured we did not simply turn a blind eye to it. We looked at what the Operational Team needed and restructured our office to support that. We have pursued multiple recruitment attempts to fill our frontline posts, some of which were successful and led to fantastic additions to our team.

While we have not yet been able to recruit into all of the vacant posts, we will continue to explore all recruitment options until we do. We have recently been able to advertise our posts externally. This opens the vacancies up to people outside the civil service. It is hoped that this will not only increase the number of applications received, but lead to applications from those with the right skills and experience to undertake this work.

So what are the next steps…..

My office is committed to reducing the backlog, but this will take time. To support this aim we are:

  • Recruiting for 3 x fixed term Senior Investigators to assist reducing the backlog and 2 x permanent Investigators to fill current vacancies.
  • Building a cadre of Fee Earning Investigators who can act as a flexible resource when our permanent investigators are at capacity.[1]
  • Reviewing our internal process to ensure they are streamlined and free of unnecessary bureaucracy without compromising on quality or integrity.
  • Analysing current caseloads to determine whether we need additional permanent resource in our investigations team and, if so, what resource is required.
  • Conducting initial eligibility checks for all new substance and maladministration applications received. This means that if an application is not eligible, complainants will be informed within 10 days of receipt.
  • Providing monthly updates to those people with applications in the allocation queue.

But, as above, this will take time.  Even once we are able to fill all of the vacant posts, the new investigators will still need to be trained before they can operate at the same capacity as our existing staff. This takes approximately two months.

My team and I understand the frustration of those of you who are waiting for your applications to be allocated. It is a frustration we share.  We want our organisation to have all of the resource it needs and be delivering a quality service to everyone who comes to us. That we have a backlog, particularly in our first 3 years, is not something we find acceptable.

For those of you who are thinking about making an application for a substance or maladministration application, please don’t allow the current backlog to put you off doing so. Failing to make an application could see you lose your right to an Ombudsman investigation for your particular complaint. However, please don’t expect that application to be allocated to an investigator within 10 days.

I will continue to update you on the progress of this issue via my website each month. Please accept my sincerest apologies and please be assured that we are doing everything we can to resolve this issue.

[1] While an excellent flexible resource, according to the conditions under which they are engaged, Fee Earners can only handle one investigation at a time. Therefore there are limits on how this flexible resource can be used to address the current backlog.